Hippety-hop, diddle-dee-die-do

Operetta is at its best when it speaks truth to power, but nothing of the sort is said with Taptoo! which, thirteen years after inception, opened in its first professional staging on February 24 (music by John Beckwith, libretto James Reaney, stage direction Guillermo Silva-Marin, Toronto Operetta Theatre). The work zooms in on the two key moments in history of Canadian nationhood: the American rebellion and the division of the colonies into loyalist and republican; and, in second part, the establishment of Toronto and the events leading up to the War of 1812. In contrast to many of its European sisters, this operetta is challenging nothing, musters barely any humour and aims to make its audiences feel good about themselves (mostly for not being American).

Political naiveté of Reaney’s libretto is extraordinary. In Hollywood vein, it has the good guys (us) and the bad guys (Americans). The British ancestors get the best music, all the dance numbers, jolly crowd scenes and all the civility. The Yankees are, whichever way you look at it, the aggressive, loud bully. Our side is in a blessed harmony with its Native allies, in the libretto represented by the wise, sweet, nature-loving, herb-dispensing Atahensic. She is married to the pacifist lad brought up by the Quakers, but they are both British loyalists – obviously, the couple is harbinger of the Canadian peace-keeping glories to come. In addition, Atahensic and Elizabeth Simcoe get put in a scene reminiscent of the sisterly interplay between the Countess and Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro. Apart from that, women characters are few and caricatures.

One would think that it would be difficult to find today a piece of writing celebrating the military and its culture, but here it is. The production magnified the problem, as every singer played their role with full-on earnestness. The odd moment of humour happened inadvertently. This was particularly the case with the character of John Graves Simcoe (baritone Todd Delaney) whose dramatic entrances and lofty pronouncements produced some unintended hilarity. There wasn’t much money for the set, it seems, so it might have been wiser to call this TOT production semi-staged. Careful attention was paid to the uniforms and the flags, and the show could indeed be mistaken for a Tatoo exercise.

Beckwith’s score is quite a willing partner in this patriotic dance. Trumpet and drums are used with abandon, the instruments often employed to get the chests heaving, blood pumping and heads swelling. In collaboration with Reaney, Beckwith incorporated some pre-existing songs from the era, but they are not re-examined but used nostalgically and regressively. The music rather goes along, provides what’s needed of it, dance where it’s needed, riffing Classical where it may be fun, quasi-lyrical moments where expected, and a whole lot of militarism. Close to the end, a loud dissonant explosion of sound interrupts the proceedings, then repeats itself once or twice later, seemingly arbitrarily. This sound is a welcome puncture to the score, a sign of what might have been had the conductor decided to undermine the silly and jingoistic libretto with a more serious artistic statement. But the puncture is quickly patched up, and the piece returns to its regular chugging along.

Not all is entirely bleak in the production. The mezzo Sarah Hicks managed to make something of her small role of Mrs. Harple, and her early duo with Mark Petracchi’s Mr. Harple in the wheel-barrow was a rare moment of beauty and solemnity. Michael Barrett and Allison Angelo also managed to breathe some life to their own characters, the central couple in the story. The small orchestra under Larry Beckwith played the score, such as it is, with energy and conviction.

These moments are however too few to change the general tenor of the piece, which is begging for a savage parody of the Michael Hollingsworth‘s VideoCab type. The text is smug and unquestioning, the music conforms, and the production magnifies all the flaws multifold. Some works wait a long time for their world premiere for a reason.

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